A shift from terrorism to China
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The U.S. War in Afghanistan — the longest war in U.S. history — will come to an end next month after two decades of America dragging its feet in the rugged hills of the outlandish country since the September 11 attacks in 2001. U.S. President Joe Biden ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on August 31. Some scholars of international politics claimed that the United States had achieved the goal of the Afghan War by killing Osama bin Laden — the founder of the militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda and the mastermind of 9/11 Attacks — on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan. But others translate the pullout of the U.S. forces into a de facto U.S defeat as it “failed to wipe out the Taliban,” the militant extremist group in Afghanistan.
The Afghan War is often compared to the Vietnam War. What similarities and differences do the two wars have? With the chapter on the extended war on terror to be closed soon, I looked into the lead-up to the pullout and ramifications of the war’s end on the security of the Korean Peninsula.
The war on terror
After the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s administration was engrossed in ferreting out the culprit. After a long investigation, the U.S. government found that the terrorist attack had been carried out by al-Qaeda and that its members were hiding in Afghanistan. Washington demanded the Taliban regime extradite the culprits to the U.S. But the Taliban refused and the U.S. launched the Afghan War to bring them to justice.
At that time, the United States used the strategy of attacking the Taliban regime through anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The U.S. therefore dispatched only a small number of special forces to Afghanistan, while backing the Northern Alliance with massive air bombings. Washington did not want mass casualties from Afghanistan as in Vietnam.
The Taliban, who fled to Pakistan under attack from U.S. forces and the Northern Alliance, rekindled its crusade against the U.S. from 2003. On the Pentagon’s part, seizing Afghanistan was easy but stabilizing the country — and winning the people over — was not. In the meantime, allies of the Taliban sprouted up across the country after being disappointed at the incompetence of the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai, a U.S. puppet. The Taliban were able to resist the Karzai administration with the weapons the U.S. had offered the Mujahideen, Islamic guerillas, when they fought against the Soviet forces in the 1980s.
As the Afghan War protracted, the Obama administration found and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 after a decade-long international manhunt. The U.S. found the justification for ending the war. Afterwards, the U.S. was actively engaged in peace negotiations with the Taliban. But the problem was the possibility of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan if the U.S. troops pull out, as happened in Vietnam. So, the Pentagon kept delaying the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, but has decided to pull out after the commander in chief’s decision.
Vietnam War vs. Afghan War
The U.S. war in Afghanistan was called another Vietnam because of two stark similarities: protracted wars in foreign countries and U.S. withdrawals after failing to establish a pro-U.S. regime. The Vietnam War lasted nine years and the Afghan War 20 years. Another similarity is the huge cost of war. (Approximately $1 trillion were spent in each war)
For the U.S., the two wars were very different from other wars. First, America could not trust the South Vietnamese and Karzai governments, both U.S. allies. The two regimes were incapable and corrupt enough to sell their U.S. weapons for personal gain. In fact, as many of the South Vietnamese forces and the Karzai troops were extremely undisciplined and secretly kept in touch with the enemy, Uncle Sam was reluctant to share sensitive military information with them.
Second, the U.S. forces had to fight the enemy without clear distinction between soldiers and civilians as the Viet Cong and the Taliban rebels suddenly attacked the U.S. forces after hiding among civilians. If the U.S. troops had not slaughtered all of them, they couldn’t have avoided ambushes.
Third, the U.S. forces had to fight with underground enemies in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Small-framed Viet Cong could dig a narrow and tight web of tunnels underground and endured the U.S. bombings. But American soldiers with a big build could not enter even if they discovered such potholes. In Afghanistan, the rebels used mountain caves as a hideout. It was nearly impossible for the U.S. forces to annihilate Taliban fighters with airstrikes.
Despite such similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan, some military experts point to stark dissimilarities. The first involves their comparative damage on human lives. Compared to the Vietnam War, which killed over 58,000 people and injured more than 300,000, only 2,400 people were killed and about 20,000 injured in Afghanistan — thanks to the deployment of precious few special troops and employment of unmanned drones for attacks on rebels.
On July 8, Biden claimed that Afghanistan is entirely different from Vietnam. But many security experts believe it is only a matter of time before the Taliban take over Afghanistan unless U.S. forces maintain security of the country.
End of Afghan War and Korea
The Vietnam War had a huge impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula. Due to the enormous losses of human lives and astronomical cost for war, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared in 1969 that the United States would support allies facing military threats with economic and military aid rather than with ground troops from then on. After the announcement dubbed the “Nixon Doctine,” the Nixon administration pulled out the 7th Division from South Korea in 1971, after which the U.S. Forces Korea were downscaled to about 40,000 from 66,000.
What impact will the end of the Afghan War have on the Korean Peninsula? Compared to the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan does not directly affect security on the peninsula. Instead, the U.S. withdrawal signifies the end of the War on Terror, a major U.S. global strategy since 9/11. Thanks to the persistent maneuvers by U.S. intelligence agencies and military, most radical groups in the Middle East have been neutralized. The U.S. has begun preparing for a war with a new enemy — China. Since the National Security Strategy was published in 2017, the U.S. defined China as the only strategic threat to America.
The U.S.’s revised global strategy affects the way its forces are operated. In case of terrorist organizations, it was difficult to locate the battlefields due to their remarkable movability of their strongholds. As swift maneuverability was key to victory, there was no need for large-scale military bases in the Middle East country over the long period.
But since the U.S. started to treat China as the main enemy, Pentagon must change the way it operates its military bases overseas. As the character — and identity — of the Chinese forces are clear, America must focus on the Asian theater.
China’s military strategy against the U.S. is primarily based on the so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy aimed at blocking the United States’ possible invasion through the East and South China Seas. Because America pursues a policy aimed at reinforcing its armed forces stationed overseas to cope with China’s rise, Washington will likely augment the U.S. Forces Korea in a sharp departure from the Nixon Doctrine over half a century ago.